Fifteen Minutes to Midnight

Helen Adams

This was written in response to the August 2006 “Farewell Challenge” by NotTasha:  Since this is our last challenge, there should be a farewell.  One of the guys has to say goodbye to someone or something.  It doesn't have to be a sad story and -- if you can put a humorous spin on it, all the better.  It cannot be a deathfic (at least not one of the Seven).  It should focus on any one of the Seven, but the One has to interact with each of the others at some point -- if not physically or verbally -- then he's got to think of each of the others at some point.

The middle of this story is based on a song, so I guess this also answers the August 2004 “Song Challenge” by JBrooks:  Write us a story inspired by a song. I don't know about anybody else, but I have a whole list of tunes I associate with the boys and their adventures. Let's compare Magnificent soundtracks! You don't have to use the lyrics in the story -- we're not looking for songfic here -- but please do include the lyrics at the end of the fic, with due credit.

(Moved to Blackraptor October 2009)

Nathan stepped onto the balcony outside his clinic, drawing in a deep breath of fresh winter air, allowing his lungs to expand until they felt near to bursting before letting the air out in a loud whoosh.  It felt good to be outside.  He had been spending too much time cooped up indoors lately, either tending to patients or hunched over a table with his nose buried in the huge fascinating medical book that his friends had pooled their money together to buy him for Christmas.  It still warmed his heart every time he saw that book, just knowing that six men - white men such as he had once believed he would never find friendship and equality with - had thought enough of him, believed enough in his skills and ambitions, to give him such a fine thing.  

Glancing up and taking note of the time by the position of the stars overhead, Nathan smiled, realizing that it must be just about midnight and that the current year was about to give way to a brand new one.  He hoped the New Year would prove to be as good as the last, for truly it had been an amazing year as he fought and laughed alongside those six men, bickering, badgering, seeing them through injuries and illnesses, and leaning on them when he himself was in need of comfort and understanding.  They had all been through good times and bad together this year, and he truly would not give back a moment of either.

Nathan was distracted from his perusal of the night sky by an unexpected sound.  Somewhere below, a man's voice was singing the words to 'Auld Lang Syne', the words soft and barely audible.  The streets were mostly empty tonight but the saloon down the street was spilling out music, laughter and the usual buzz of half-drunken chatter and Nathan strained to hear the singer better, feeling more drawn to the gentle melody than to the happy din down the street.  

Crouching down and leaning so far toward that he was in some danger of pitching headlong down the stairs, Nathan listened intently until the song was done and the singer let go a gusty sigh and a southern-tinged muttering of, “The good old days, indeed.”

“Ezra?” Nathan blurted,  so surprised to realize that the quiet, wistfully-sung tune had come from the brash and bold gambler, whom he had assumed was fleecing the crowd inside the noisy saloon, that he unintentionally spoke his name aloud.

The sound of boot heels striking hollowly against wooden planks and the shift and rustle of material being straightened and smoothed were enough to tell Nathan that his friend must have been sitting on the steps below the clinic.   The shadows were deep in that spot, which explained why he had been unable to detect where the singing had originated.

“Ezra, wait!  Don’t go,” Nathan called, risking a quick run down those dark steps without a lantern, in his haste to keep the other man from leaving. 

The retreating foot-falls slowed, hesitated, and then stopped.  Squinting, Nathan finally spotted the other man, dressed today in his charcoal gray trousers, a deep-blue shirt and his midnight blue coat, which had caused him to become even more a part of the surrounding darkness.

“Can I help you, Mr. Jackson?”

He shifted in place and Nathan caught a glint of glass in his hand.  “Just hoping for somebody to talk to.  You getting ready to ring in the New Year?” he asked casually, suspecting that Ezra was already drunk, or well on his way to it, but hoping that he was wrong.   The gambler tended to lose his impeccable manners and polite demeanor when he’d had a few too many.

Ezra stepped forward, holding up the bottle in his hand so that Nathan could see the label.  It was the bottle of aged Kentucky bourbon that Ezra had been given as his own Christmas gift. “You might say so, although I was more in mind of bidding a fond farewell to the old one.”

Nathan winced.  There was enough of a slur to the normally smooth southern tones that he could tell his first guess had been correct.  “I was doing that myself, up above, though I didn’t have anything so fine to toast it with.”

Taking the hint, Ezra passed him the bottle then moved to sit rather ungracefully again upon the clinic steps. 

The healer took a seat as well and helped himself to a long pull of the fine liquor, releasing his breath with a wheeze and a slight cough that turned into laughter as he said, “Lord Almighty, Ezra!  You’ll be lucky to remember the old year at all if you drink much more of this!”

Ezra snatched the whiskey back.  “Well, we wouldn’t want that, now would we?”

Nathan bit his tongue to keep the answering sarcasm that leapt to its tip silent as he watched Ezra tilt the bottle back.  He thought again about that fine big medical tome upstairs, reminding himself that sometimes healing was about more than just knives and poultices.  

“Y’know,” he said, “I was just thinkin’ on how fine this last year has been, and how much I’ve enjoyed having you all to spend it with.”

The gambler leaned forward, resting his forearms upon his thighs and allowing the bottle to dangle between his knees.  “It had its moments,” he said quietly.  “But much of it I’d rather just forget.  Are you familiar with the custom of making resolutions on New Year’s Eve?”

Surprised by the abrupt change of subject, he replied, “Sure.”

“Do you ever make them yourself?”

Nathan copied Ezra’s position to be better able to see his face.  “Ain’t made any for a few years now, but when I was a kid my daddy used to tell us to look up at the stars and let all them bright lights guide us to a better future.  Once we’d picked out just the right star, we’d make a promise on what we was gonna do to make that future come true.”

Interested in spite of himself, Ezra cocked his head and asked, “And did you?  Did you keep your promises and obtain your bright future?”

Nathan shrugged.  “Sometimes.  Things didn’t always work out the way we’d figured, but that wasn’t always a bad thing.  The last year I made a resolution, I was going to run away and find me a mountaintop or a deserted wood or a cave someplace where I’d live out my days with only myself to be takin’ orders from, where slavery would never touch me again.”  He smiled at that memory.  “That sounded real fine when I was seventeen.  Didn’t never figure I’d go ahead and run off only to get drafted into service for the Union.”

Ezra snorted what might have been a laugh and took another swig of his liquor, passing the bottle once more to Nathan.  “So a boy made a foolish vow on New Year’s Eve and found himself on a path toward an unexpected destiny.  That seems appropriate.”

“Ain’t you ever made a foolish promise and got something good out of it that you didn’t expect?”

The gambler pondered the question.  “I suppose one might count a promise made to defend an Indian village with a crew of reprobates and scoundrels, all for five paltry dollars, as having a positive eventual outcome.  Though of course that wasn’t a New Year’s resolution, so perhaps it doesn’t count.”

Nathan grinned.  “I think it does.  Any others?”

Getting into the spirit of things, Ezra said, “Well, there was a certain resolution to stay in one spot for a period of thirty days in return for the promise of a pardon.”

“I’d count that a mighty good thing, you might even say that was destiny.”

Abruptly, Ezra’s darker mood returned.  “All such paths ever seem to lead toward are the very roads I’ve already walked.”


“Meaning that when I am pushed, I inevitably fall.”  For a few moments, he stopped talked, just rubbing a knuckle across his lower lip in a distracted fashion.  Finally, he continued, “Do you realize that I’m only a few short months away from my thirtieth birthday, and I have nothing to show for it?”

Deciding that a friendly touch would not go amiss, Nathan laid a hand upon Ezra’s shoulder.  “I wouldn’t say that.”

“No?  I have no family other than a mother whom I still allow to treat me like a recalcitrant child whenever I fail to live up to her twisted expectations.  I have no property other than a horse and what he can carry, my entire monetary worth currently stands at just over twelve dollars, and if this passing year has shown me anything, it has been that the much admired traits of dignity, honor and trustworthiness are just as far outside my grasp today as they were a year ago, or five years ago, or ten.”  He sighed.  “What’s the point of looking forward to the coming year if it’s going to end in precisely the same way that every other one has?”

Nathan felt a stirring of guilt as he listened to the sad words, knowing that Ezra would never have voiced them sober, and also knowing that he was at least partially responsible for the other man’s viewpoint. 

“You can’t look at things that way, Ezra,” he said.  “You ain’t the same man I first met eighteen months ago.  You ain’t even the same one who lived here in Four Corners last New Year’s.”


Nathan was startled by the mix of emotions he could hear in that one simple word.  There was bleakness, hope and doubt, a need to be believed in mixed with a fear of that same belief.  

“No,” the healer said calmly, a little surprised by his own certainty.  “Think on all the things that went wrong for you this year.  That saloon your mama swindled you out of, the gold field you couldn’t get from them settlers on the wagon-train, that cheatin’ gambler who humiliated you in front of half the town, getting shot and losing out on that ten-thousand dollars you had in your coat at the Governor’s rally, the time you lost that diamond at Ella Gaines’ place . . .”

“You know, you’re really not helping me to feel better,” Ezra cut in sourly, unconsciously rubbing at the arm that had taken a bullet.

Nathan smiled.  “I know, but that’s because you ain’t lookin’ at all those things the same way I am.”

“Do tell,” Ezra drawled wryly.

“Both that money and the diamond kept you from getting killed, which I consider a pretty good trade-off.  And you probably wouldn’t have taken the money in the first place if some of us hadn’t all but dared you to do it.”  When Ezra frowned in confusion, Nathan admitted, “Josiah told me what happened between you two in the church that day.”

Ezra groaned softly and took another drink.  “I should have realized.  He probably viewed his confession of hypocrisy as being a penance, or some such nonsense.”

“Ain’t nonsense if you mean it when you say you’re sorry.”

The gambler stared at him for a moment, recognizing that Nathan was not necessarily referring to Josiah.  Curious, he asked, “What about the saloon?  How does that incident make me a better man than the one you first met?  After all, I did virtually ignore Mr. Tanner’s plight in deference to carrying on my futile imbroglio with Mother.”

“Maybe, but you were there when he really needed you, and besides, you’d saved your money up and bought that saloon fair and square.  The Ezra Standish I first met never would have considered doing things that way and if I’d stopped to think about that, I would have invested when you asked me to.  In fact, if you ever buy into another business, I’d like to get in on it.”

“You would,” Ezra said flatly, clearly not believing him.

“I would, ‘cause you may have lived a few hard lessons this past year but I’m the one who learned from ‘em,” Nathan told him, looking him straight in the eye until he saw his sincerity begin to seep through Ezra’s disbelief.   “Take that wagon-train, for instance.  The old Ezra would have sailed right in and started bilking those honest folks the minute he got within talking distance.  He wouldn’t have spent his time playing games with Buck and Josiah to get that widow-woman’s attention, and he sure as hell wouldn’t have spent so much time tellin’ me all about what he was planning to do!”

Ezra favored him with a rueful smirk.  “I suppose you may have a point with that one.”

“And what about the fact that you refused to cheat that man Banks at poker, even when you knew for damn sure that he was cheatin’ you?”

“How did you . . . that is, what makes you think I didn’t?” 

Nathan was amused to see that Ezra looked insulted by the insinuation of honesty.   “Buck saw it all.  He gave me a real earful one day when I was in a bad mood and rantin’ to  him about your moral character.”

“Or lack thereof?”

Glad that Ezra would not be able to see the blood heating his cheeks, Nathan pressed on.  “’Anyhow, Buck had a whole lot to say that night.  He told me about that and a whole lot of other times when you gone out of your way to do right by somebody.   Got me to thinking that I may have been judging you more on past deeds than present ones.”

“You do seem to have given this a great deal of thought,” Ezra replied dryly.

Nathan nodded.  “Yeah, I reckon I have.  Just been waiting on the right time to tell you.  What it all boils down to is that you got a lot of things to look back on with pride this year, and maybe next year will be even better.  You’re becoming a good man, Ezra, whether you like it or not.”

“Well, don’t expect me to give up my chosen profession in favor of becoming a Missionary any time soon.”  The words were once again filled with sarcasm, but the bitterness had gone and this time Ezra smiled as he spoke.

The healer laughed outright at that and after a moment Ezra joined in. 

“What time is it?” Nathan asked as they settled down again.

Ezra pulled out his pocket-watch, fumbling it a little as he pried open the case.  “One minute until midnight.”  Swishing the liquid in the bottom of his whiskey bottle, he smiled.  “Looks like we still have enough left to welcome in the coming year.”

Accepting the offer, Nathan held the bottle up to the sky, finding a nice bright star. “I resolve to make fewer judgments without getting all the facts first.  Here’s to good friends and a bright future.”

He took a sip to seal the promise, then handed it back to Ezra who thought for a moment, then said, “I resolve to worry less about what I can’t change, and make the most of my opportunities as they arise.  Here’s to you, and all of our absent friends.  May it be a prosperous year for us all.”

As Ezra swallowed down the last of the whiskey, an explosion of sound filled the air in the form of a cheer.  Whistling, clapping, gun-shots, laughter and finally a raucous rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” belted by a chorus of drunken voices.

Nathan winced as the crowd hit a sour note.  “I liked your version better.  I didn’t even know you could sing.”

Ezra laughed.  “Compared with that cacophony, I’m a regular bard!” 

He raised an eyebrow toward Nathan, inquiring silently and after a moment, Nathan nodded.  As the crowd inside the saloon wound toward the end of the song, the two men on the clinic steps joined their voices with the chorus.  “For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne.  We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”